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Twelve ayatanas

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Twelve ayatanas (Skt. dvādaśāyatana; Pali. dvādas’ āyatanāni; T. skye mched bcu gnyis སྐྱེ་མཆེད་བཅུ་གཉིས་), or twelve sense bases or twelve sense spheres, are defined within the Abhidharma teachings as sense-fields which serve as the bases for the production of consciousness.[1]

The twelve ayatanas (or sense bases) consist of:

  • six external sense bases (sights, sounds, smells, etc.)
  • six internal sense bases (eye base, ear base, nose base, etc.)

Thus, there are six internal-external (base-object) pairs of sense bases:

  • eye base + visible forms (sights)
  • ear base + sound
  • nose base + odor
  • tongue base + taste
  • body base + touch
  • mind base + mental objects

Buddhism identifies six "senses" as opposed to the Western identification of five.[2][3] In Buddhism, "mind" denotes an internal sense organ which interacts with sense objects that include sense impressions, feelings, perceptions and volition.[4]


It is said that ayatana is the door through which experience enters.

  • Aya means arrival and
  • Tana means that which furthers or extends or goes

In Tibetan

  • kyé means to be born or to arrive.
  • ché (or chépa) means extending or going further

What is arriving and then spreading is sensation, which is differentiated in six ways.[5]

Alternate translations

  • twelve sense fields (Buswell)[1]
  • twelve bases of cognition (Buswell)[1]
  • twelve sources of consciousness
  • twelve sense-fields
  • twelve sense spheres
  • twelve sense sources
  • twelve sensory activity fields
  • twelve sense bases (Bodhi, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidharma)
  • twelve sense-media (Thanissaro)

External sense bases

The six external sense bases (Pali: bāhirāni āyatanāni) are also known as "sense objects" or "domains"[6]. They are:

  • sights (Skt. rūpa-āyatana; Wyl. gzugs kyi skye mched)
  • sounds (Skt.śabda-āyatana; Wyl. sgra'i skye mched)
  • smells (Skt. gandha-āyatana; Wyl. dri'i skye mched)
  • tastes (Skt. rasa-āyatana; Wyl. ro'i skye mched)
  • textures (Skt. spraṣṭavya-āyatana; Wyl. reg bya'i skye mched)
  • mental objects' (Skt. dharma-āyatana; Wyl. chos kyi skye mched)

Rupa-ayatana (visible forms)

Rupa-ayatana is translated as "visible objects" or "sights". In the context of the sense bases, rūpa-ayatana refers to visual objects (or objects knowable by the eye through light). This should not be confused with the the term rupa-skandha in the context of the five skandhas, which refers to all material objects, both of the world and the body.

Thus, when comparing these two uses of rūpa, the rupa aggregate (rupa-skandha) includes the rūpa sense-object (rupa-ayatana) as well as the four other material sense-objects (sound, odor, taste and touch).

Dharma-ayatana (mental objects)

Dharma-ayatana is translated here as "mental objects". Other frequently seen translations include

  • "mental phenomena" (e.g., Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1135ff.),
  • "thoughts,"
  • "ideas" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and
  • "contents of the mind" (VRI, 1996, p. 39)

Internal sense bases

The internal sense bases are:

  • eye base (Skt. cakṣur-āyatana; Wyl. mig gi skye mched)
  • ear base (Skt. śrotra-āyatana; Wyl. rna ba'i skye mched)
  • nose base' (Skt. ghrāṇa-āyatana; Wyl. sna'i skye mched)
  • tongue base (Skt. jihva-āyatana; Wyl. lce'i skye mched)
  • body base (Skt.kāya-āyatana; Wyl. lus kyi skye mched)
  • mind base (Skt. mano-āyatana; Wyl. yid kyi skye mched)[7]

The internal sense bases (Pali: ajjhattikāni āyatanāni) are also known as, "organs", "gates", "doors", "powers" or "roots"[8]

The five internal sense bases

The first five sense bases are also known as sense organs, sense doors, etc. The are the same as the five sense faculties within the scheme of the eighteen dhatus.

These internal sense bases are not the gross organs themselves (e.g., the eye, ear, etc.), but subtle matter within them.[9]

For more information, see: five sense faculties.

The mind base (mano-ayatana)

In regards to the sixth internal sense base of mind (mano), Pali subcommentaries (attributed to Dhammapāla Thera) distinguish between consciousness arising from the five physical sense bases and that arising from the the "life-continuum" or "unconscious mind" (bhavaṅga-mana):[10]

"Of the consciousness or mind aggregate included in a course of cognition of eye-consciousness, just the eye-base [not the mind-base] is the 'door' of origin, and the [external sense] base of the material form is the visible object. So it is in the case of the others [that is, the ear, nose, tongue and body sense bases]. But of the sixth sense-base the part of the mind base called the life-continuum, the unconscious mind, is the 'door' of origin...."[11]

Relation to the four noble truths

In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identifies that the origin of suffering (Pali, Skt.: dukkha) is craving (Pali: taṇhā; Skt.: tṛṣṇā). In the chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha identifies that craving arises from sensations that result from contact at the six sense bases. Therefore, to overcome craving and its resultant suffering, one should develop restraint of and insight into the sense bases.[12]

Names of sense bases in the Pali language

The dhatus are expressed in the Pali langauge as follows:

Dvādas’ āyatanāni: cakkhāyatanaṃ, sotāyatanaṃ, ghānāyatanaṃ, jivhāyatanaṃ, kāyāyatanaṃ, manāyatanaṃ, rūpāyatanaṃ, saddāyatanaṃ, gandhāyatanaṃ, rasāyatanaṃ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṃ, dhammāyatanaṃ.[13]

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these elements as follows:

The twelve sense bases are: (1) the eye base, (2) the ear base, (3) the nose base, (4) the tongue base, (5) the body base, (6) the mind base, (7) the visible form base, (8) the sound base, (9) the smell base, (10) the taste base, (11) the tangible base, (12) the mental-object base.[13]

Sanskrit tradition

Mipham Rinpoche states:

The belief that the self is that which encounters, or consumes, is eliminated by gaining expertise regarding the sense sources. All phenomena are included within the sense sources; nothing exists apart from these twelve. The six outer sense sources are encountered by the six inner sense sources. Thus, it is realized that there is no consumer other than merely the inner sense sources.[14]

Relation to other modes of analysis

The abhidharma tradition presents multiple modes with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. The three most common methods of investigation are:

  • five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
  • twelve ayatanas
  • eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)

Comparison with the eighteen dhatus

The eighteen dhatus are related to the twelve ayatanas as follows: in the scheme of the 18 dhatus, the "mind base" of the 12 ayatanas is divided into seven parts: the mind faculty + the six types of consciousness.[15]

Comparision with the five skandhas

See: Five skandhas#Twelve ayatanas (sense bases)

See also

  • Heart Sutra - Mahayana text that shows the ayatanas in Mahayana discourse
  • Indriya - "faculties", which include a group of "six sensory faculties" similar to the six sense bases
  • Satipatthana Sutta - includes a meditation using sense bases as the meditative object
  • Five skandhas - a similar Buddhist construct
  • Twelve Nidanas - the chain of endless suffering of which the sense bases are the fifth link


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana.
  2. Hamilton (2001), p. 53, writes: "... six senses, including one relating to non-sensory mental activity, are recognized in Buddhism and other Indian schools of thought...."
  3. See also Pine 2004, pg. 101. Red Pine argues that this scheme probably predates Buddhism, because it has ten external members (ear, sound, nose, odor, tongue, taste, body, touch) corresponding to the single external skandha (form), and only two internal members (mind and thought) corresponding to the four internal skandhas.
  4. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
  5. Goodman 2020, s.v. "Sense Bases (Ayatanas)".
  6. Pine 2004, pg. 103
  7. Translation of eye base, etc., is used by Bikkhu Bodhi; see Connected Discourses - Selections
  8. Pine 2004, pg. 102
  9. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  10. Regarding bhavaṅga being a primarily post-canonical concept, see Matthews (1995, p. 128) where he states for instance: "Bhavaṅga does not occur in the Sutta Pitaka, but its appearance in both the Dhammasagai and the Paṭṭhāna assured that it received much post-classical attention in the Theravāda." He further amplifies this in an endnote (p. 140, n. 34): "... [A]lthough bhavaṅga does appear in the Abhidhamma Piaka, it is not until the post-classical era that it receives much attention." Citing Ñāamoli and others, Matthews (1995, p. 123) defines the "classical age" as "ended about the 4th century A.D.," just prior to the "great age of commentaries."
  11. Soma (2003), p. 133. This excerpt is from the subcommentary to the Majjhima Nikāya, the Līnatthapakāsanā Tīkā.
  12. Bodhi (2005b), starting at time 50:00. Bodhi (2005b) references, for instance, Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 149, where the Buddha instructs:
    "...[K]nowing & seeing the eye as it actually is present, knowing & seeing [visible] forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye as they actually are present, knowing & seeing whatever arises conditioned through contact at the eye – experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain – as it actually is present, one is not infatuated with the eye... forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye... whatever arises.... The craving that makes for further becoming – accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that – is abandoned by him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances are abandoned. His bodily torments & mental torments are abandoned. His bodily distresses & mental distresses are abandoned. He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of awareness..." (Thanissaro, 1998c).
  13. 13.0 13.1 Bodhi (2000a), Section "The Twelve Sense Bases"
  14. Dharmachakra Translation Committee 2007, s.v. Ten views of self.
  15. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2000, s.v. "The Eighteen Elements".


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  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Ācariya Anuruddha. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-02-9.
  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000b). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. (Part IV is "The Book of the Six Sense Bases (Salayatanavagga)".) Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
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  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (18 Jan 2005b). MN 10: Satipatthana Sutta (continued) (MP3 audio file) [In this series of talks on the Majjhima Nikaya, this is Bodhi's ninth talk on the Satipatthana Sutta. In this talk, the discussion regarding the sense bases starts at time 45:36]. Available on-line at http://www.bodhimonastery.net/MP3/M0060_MN-010.mp3.
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  • Mipham (2007). Middle Beyond Extremes: Maitreya's Madhyantavibhaga with Commentaries by Khenpo Shenga and Ju Mipham by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Snow Lion Publications. Ithica.
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